The value of subtext and how to achieve it

Subtext, how to create subtext
Subtext is below the surface

Lately I’ve been musing on subtext, the things that aren’t explicitly in a text and yet are present by implication. Readers and movie goers like subtext because it allows them to speculate and thus involve themselves in the storytelling. They like it so much that Hollywood has a saying that if the scene is about what the scene is about, you’re in trouble.

For a long time, subtext was a mystery to me, mostly because I can’t shake off the effect of years spent teaching technical writing. My instinct is to say things clearly, preferably more than once, and maybe in a nice bulleted list or diagram. So what was this subtext people were talking about?

Great Writers of Subtext

Then a friend pointed out that Austen (whom I love) is nearly all subtext. Because of social mores governing what young women in particular should say and do, her characters can’t explicitly say much of what’s on their minds. For example, in Persuasion, when Captain Wentworth lifts a troublesome two-year-old off Anne Elliot’s back and then resolutely keeps his distance so she can’t thank him, the reader wonders along with Anne just what the captain’s attention might mean. Because of the subtext, that scene was thrilling enough that I’ve remembered it clearly for years.

More currently, oneĀ  of my favorite fantasy writers is Megan Whalen Turner, and I recently saw her called The Queen of Subtext. In Whalen’s Attolia series, characters always hold back and hide some part of themselves. The reader can sense the character has secrets, and that drives the reader onward to find out what they are.

Where Subtext Comes From

Then, along came James Scott Bell, giving advice on revision, and to my tech-writerly delight, he talks about subtext in a diagram! According to Bell’s diagram, subtext in a scene comes from

1. Previous story events, either shown or given as backstory. What characters have experienced so far affects how and why they react to unfolding events, and we recognize it even when the writer hasn’t spelled it out.

2. Characters’ relationships. When we know how characters feel about one another, every interaction between them is shot through with more emotion than the simple event in the scene would evoke by itself. Thus the scene become deeper and means more.

3. Theme. Not all writers think of theme when they’re writing, but for most of us, some central thread of meaning emerges in the course of writing. That meaning attaches to events sometimes in ways that aren’t obvious, loading those events with subtext. (Revision & Self-Editing, p. 103)

The reader may understand the subtext more than the characters do or simply be aware that there’s something worth knowing but not yet told (e.g. What happened between Rick and Ilse in Paris, anyway?).

Subtext deepens a scene and engages readers more fully. So give your characters secrets. Give them topics they care about but can’t talk about. Give them hopes they’re too frightened to voice. Make everything affected by what comes before. Make the scene about more than what it’s about.

Three ways experts differ from the rest of us

People become experts in three ways
It’s Always Possible to Get Better

How do people become experts in any field, including writing?

I recently read Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated. Colvin is an editor for Fortune magazine, so his main interest is in improving corporate performance. However, he writes about the research on the differences between expert and novice performances in areas ranging from sports to music. My focus, of course, was writing and how I might become a better writer.

I like his claim of talent being overrated. I’m not sure I even believe in the concept of inborn talent. Oh, some people do various things better than others. But how do they get to that level of performance? Continue reading “Three ways experts differ from the rest of us”

What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with the subtle, hard-to-pin-down subject of voice in fiction. I’m not talking about the writer’s voice, but about that of the point of view character. As a friend of mine once said, a good novel needs three things: interesting characters, something fascinating for them to do, and a strong voice. When I heard that, I knew it was right. But my first thought was, “If only doing that was as easy as it sounds!” My second was, “How can I get a better handle on voice?” Continue reading “What Creates a Powerful Character Voice?”

Three Tips to Avoid Passive Voice and Passive Writing

On one writers board I frequent, people repeatedly warn about using forms of the verb “to be” because that would be “passive voice” and that’s bad writing. Every time I read that, my blood pressure rises a little. Allow me to differentiate between passive voice, emphasis on action, and the delights of characters who shape situations rather than just respond to them.

Passive voice

Warning: Grammar ahead

The terms “active voice” and “passive voice” apply only to transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that pass action from an actor to a receiver. In an active voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the actor. For example, in “John hit the ball,” “John” is both the subject of the sentence and the one who’s doing the hitting. In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is the receiver of the action. For example, in “The ball was hit by John,” “ball” is the subject and is being hit.

Passive voice is useful if you want to hide the doer because you can omit the “by” phrase (The ball was hit). It’s also useful if the receiver of the action is more important than the doer (Ross Hall was built…). However, passive voice sentences are slightly but measurably slower to read and harder to comprehend. Continue reading “Three Tips to Avoid Passive Voice and Passive Writing”

Book Contract with Inspired Quill

I’m happy to announce that I’ve signed a book contract with Inspired Quill to publish The Wind Reader in September, 2018.

Inspired Quill

Inspired Quill is a small, UK press that thinks of itself as a “social enterprise,” meaning it looks to give back to the community. I’m very excited to be working with them. Continue reading “Book Contract with Inspired Quill”

How Studying Engineers Surprisingly Matches Writing Fantasy

I’ve spent a huge portion of my adult life researching the writing of engineers. I won six national awards for that work, including one from IEEE. You’d think nothing could be farther from writing a middle-grade or YA fantasy. When I wrote my first novel, however, I realized I was still doing some of the same work. First, I was making the familiar strange and the strange familiar. And second, even more important, I was trying to understand the workings of power. Continue reading “How Studying Engineers Surprisingly Matches Writing Fantasy”